How to harness the power of algae

Louise Smyth

A common aquatic plant, algae, has become the focus of a growing number of research and development projects due to its long list of potential uses in everything from biofuel production, foodstuffs, dyes, to the manufacture of bioplastics.

Research underway at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is using algae to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, power plants or steel processing exhaust to make algae oil. As well as being used to produce biofuel, this oil can be used in nutritional supplements and other foodstuffs, or in textiles. An interesting example of the latter involves the production of carbon fibres. 
Described as a ‘third generation’ biofuel, the fuel derived from algae has a number of advantages over those produced using feedstocks such as sugar cane and corn. Among the key benefits is the ability to cultivate algae on a large scale in areas that are unsuitable for food crops. 

For example, US patent number 8,507,254, demonstrates that algae can be grown successfully in seawater, providing opportunities for growth and harvest from the sea. Nevertheless, challenges remain in achieving mass production on a scale required to provide a viable biofuel alternative and also in achieving the right energy balance. For example, in order to extract lipids from the algae, which is a process required for biofuel production, it is often the case that moisture must be removed first. This typically involves an energy-intensive drying process. To address this problem, engineers at the University of Utah have recently developed a jet mixer capable of extracting lipids using much less energy than traditional methods, which means mass production of algae biofuel is now more sustainable and more commercially-viable.  

An alternative separation method is described in Vilnius University’s patent application number WO 2014/027871. This technology uses magnetic fields to provide the energy balance needed to offer a cost-effective algal extraction method.

Could algae power fuel cells?

A team at the University of Cambridge is also helping to bring algae-powered fuel cells, known as biophotovoltaic cells, closer to practical implementation. During photosynthesis, algae produces electrons which can be harnessed to deliver an electrical current. Having developed a new double-chamber system, the research team found that it was possible to separate the processes of electron generation and power conversion, in order to optimise the performance of both. Genetically-modified algae have also been used to introduce mutations capable of minimising power wastage from the biophotovoltaic cells.
In this fast-moving area of research science, the number of international patent families filed at the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) containing the word ‘algae’ in their abstract has increased significantly – from about 90 in 2008 to nearly 3000 in 2018.
Much of the research activity to date is led by universities, with the research often being developed through collaboration with industry. As such, it is important to consider patent protection at an early stage, in order to ensure that there is no confusion as to ownership of the idea. Furthermore, it’s important to consider IP ownership as part of the collaboration agreement to ensure that ownership and subsequent use of any jointly-developed ideas is agreed by all parties at the outset. This will help to avoid the risk of potentially costly disputes. Seeking professional advice ahead of time will ensure that research departments are ready to broach conversations about IP ownership with private businesses or investors as and when necessary.
While much progress has been made to date, with biomass growth and lipid extraction efficiencies being continuously improved, algae-related research and development activity is only just beginning. This simple organism has the potential to provide an ultra-efficient green energy source for use in areas where other biomass sources are unavailable - a potentially powerful tool in our alternative energy armoury.
The author is Dr Joanna Thurston, partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.



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